Last Stop on the Odyssey (for now): an Innovative African University in Mauritius

Mauritius is a popular destination for European holiday-makers, though many Americans haven’t even heard of it. Geographically, it’s a small island-nation in the Indian Ocean not far from Madagascar. Culturally, it’s a true melting pot with African, Indian, Chinese, and European heritage, and three widely-spoken languages, Creole, French, and English. Mauritius is also home to the African Leadership University (ALU), an innovative experiment that aims to define the future of higher education in Africa and beyond.

ALU was founded by Fred Swaniker — a charismatic Ghanaian graduate of Stanford’s business school — on the heels of his successful African Leadership Academy for high-schoolers. ALU Mauritius launched about two years ago, with a second campus in Rwanda opening in a couple of months. Their ambitious goal is a large network of campuses across Africa graduating three million students by the year 2060. I spent fewer than four full days at ALU, but it was enough time to get a glimpse of the promises and perils of creating a campus out of nothing, much less launching a continent-wide network.

ALU’s classrooms and meeting rooms (nobody gets an office!) are housed temporarily in a business park, with students living in several hotels a bus ride away. A large crane in the middle of a nearby sugar cane field marks the site of their future residential campus.

ALU temporarily occupies the building on the right-hand side of this photo, part of a small and attractive business park in a semi-rural setting.

ALU is reminiscent of another young and idealistic university I visited — the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh. Like AUW, the ALU students are drawn from many countries across a vast region and are thrilled to be there, eager to learn. For my three-day Big Data course I had a terrific group of 30–40 second-year students. They were fun-loving yet seriously interested in mastering the material, and generally capable of doing so. While AUW in Bangladesh attempts to provide a liberal arts education, a radical idea almost anywhere outside of the U.S., ALU goes a step further: Their first-year program is comprised almost entirely of leadership cultivation, entrepreneurial training, and project-based learning.

A significant difference from AUW is that in order to scale, ALU is a for-profit institution. Almost all of the top administrators come from a business background, and they treat ALU like a start-up. There’s a surprisingly large and very international staff — about 150 of them for 300 students, although some staff will soon ship off to the Rwanda campus. Staff titles are straight out of Silicon Valley: there are multiple “brand marketers,” along with “user experience designers,” separate “learning experience designers,” and a “talent acquisition team.” Reminiscent of, and apparently inspired by, Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school), the culture of inventiveness seems to attract people who just plain love the atmosphere. I met one American university student who came for an internship, then after going back to school lasted just a week before returning to ALU full time as a “learning platform developer.” Will this nontraditional university culture be the key to delivering quality education across the African continent? Time will tell!

Part of ALU’s start-up culture is an open area for working; there are no offices for faculty or staff.

In the course of my travel-teaching I’ve discovered that although my primary target audience is the students, the greatest long-term impact may in fact be through faculty: At most stops a number of faculty have participated in my courses and workshops, and they often claim they will change their own teaching as a result — either their style of teaching, the content, or both. At ALU it took me a while to even identify the faculty; it turns out they’re called “curriculum facilitators.” Considering the size of the overall staff there are surprisingly few of them (more on that in a moment), and they were too busy to attend much of my teaching program. Mauritius certainly has its attractions as a place to relocate, but I wonder if, like AUW, the university will have difficulty keeping its faculty more than a year or two — even the newest ones were already talking about “island fever” and academic isolation.

So how does a pan-African start-up university with few faculty and an atypical first-year curriculum manage to survive, much less scale? Although the first class of students are all on full scholarship, a fraction of the second class needed to be fee-paying, and more will be needed in the future; apparently the change in student body was palpable. To attract fee-paying students the programs need to be accredited, so ALU recently partnered with Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, who provides all of their course content for the second year and beyond. The ALU faculty, it turns out, really are “curriculum facilitators,” delivering the Scottish materials to the African student body with some liberties but not many.

I had mostly second-year (i.e., scholarship) students in my short-course and I have to say they were a delightful bunch. They were also my most appropriate audience yet for analyzing the soccer world cup dataset (see previous blog), with students hailing from five different countries that played in the tournament: Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and South Africa. Perhaps ten other African countries were represented among the students, from Algeria to Zimbabwe; it was truly a unique group.

The students in my Big Data short-course came from numerous countries in both northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Being part of the inaugural class at ALU had clearly made them a tight-knit group.

I didn’t have a great deal of time to explore Mauritius, but I enjoyed the ocean view from my hotel room, had a lovely dinner at the home of a Mauritian staff member’s parents, and took a very enjoyable (though muddy) hike to the summit of “Le Pouce.” Traveling the rural roads here and there gave me a glimpse of real Mauritius, while avoiding the upscale resort complexes that apparently clog certain areas of the island.

I hiked iconic “Le Pouce” despite low clouds clinging to the summit. The fog parted long enough for a quick snap of Port Louis, Mauritius’ capital and biggest city by far.

And now, alas, the odyssey is over for the time being. It’s been a wonderful and profound experience that I feel compelled to keep alive, if only with one or two short trips per year. Stay tuned for Nigeria in July.